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An Audience of One
bibliomaniac
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The whirring sound in the distance was coming closer, so I clamped my hands over my ears and retreated under the covers, where the only sound echoing in my ears was the swish-swoosh of blood being pumped around my body.  I remained still for a moment or two, then, gasping for air, I pushed back the eiderdown and clambered out to take refuge under the bed - just in time, I thought.  It was almost upon us now, the engine's rumble signaling that the 'plane was too close for comfort, and I knew that, if it came overhead, then we would all be dead by morning.  But we weren't killed that night, and at some point I had fallen asleep, waking when my mother called up the stairs to tell me that if I didn't get a move on I would miss the bus and have to run all two miles to school.

I remember walking along the old railway tracks once, with my friend Jennifer - we must have been about nine or ten.  I heard a light aircraft in the distance, a rare occurrence in a rural area, even though there was an airfield about ten miles away.  I hid behind a tree, scared that I might be chased by a crazy Luftwaffe pilot, who would fire at me for sport.  My mother had taken refuge under a hedge when it happened to her - she'd told me that story several times - so I made for the cluster of trees, Jennifer running in my wake.  "What did you do that for?" she asked.  I shrugged my shoulders, and pretended it was part of a game.

I lived with the fear that we would be bombed out of our house, just like my mother was bombed out of her house three or four times during the Second World War.  I lived with the fear that I would be sent from home, just like my mother was sent away, evacuated out of London at the outset of war along with her brothers and sisters, then split up between strangers, as if they'd just been bought at a cattle market. Not a meal went by without we were reminded to eat every morsel, because when she was our age, as she told me many a time, you were lucky to get anything on your plate at all.  I remember her telling me a story about the time she had taken her father's dinner to him one evening, carefully walking upstairs to the bedroom where he was sleeping so that nothing was spilled.  But before knocking, she slid her finger around the edge of the plate, then brought it to her mouth to savor just a little gravy, because her stomach was rumbling with hunger, and he would not be awake until he heard her small hand rap at the door.  Her father had returned home, in his cups, after the pubs closed for the afternoon. 

The men who worked on the print in Fleet Street were all the same. Reporters, compositors, printers, even Beaverbrook himself was known to be at the pub across the road from the Express as soon as opening time rolled around and the late editions had gone to press.  So it was a man in a bad way with his drink who opened the door to the five-year-old girl who held his plate of dinner up to him.  And it was a man with a temper and a sore head who swore he'd stripe her for fingering his gravy, and who took his belt to her legs for the cheek of it, beating her so hard that she could barely walk down the stairs again.  I knew the whole story by the time I was five, of the kind of father he was.  He was no pauper, in fact, his children should have had new shoes on their feet, not old cotton plimsolls, but he drank his money away every day, so his family went hungry.  I was too young to question why a woman might see her husband fed before her children, why she might ensure his plate was full while her young had nothing but bread and dripping.  I only knew that my mother went to bed hungry many a night, when she was my age.

It was years later, in my twenties, that I began to realize that I was part of my mother's exorcism of her past, that in the telling and retelling of her stories, she was removing more pus from the wounds of a childhood marked by war, and more poison left behind by the abuse she endured at her father's hands.  My mother endured two wars. One battle was shared with every child who was ever evacuated, with everyone who had ever been in the midst of an air-raid, who struggled through rationing or who lost their hearts to war.  And in the other, she was a solitary trooper, her enemy an alcoholic father who chose just one child to pick on.  It was no wonder, then, that she escaped the city as soon as she could, and found much to soothe her soul in the countryside.  And in time there was a child of her own, the daughter she would only allow her drunk of a father to see but once.  I was the girl who would sit at her mother's feet by the fire and listen to her stories, the one who became steeped in her mother's past, even though that past was still raw and hurting.  I was the child who feared that every aircraft flying over the house in the dark peace of night, might be laden with bombs.